Geography Lessons

“I”m the navigator, I have a right to know where I’m going!” 

Astronaut Don Eisle, prior to his Apollo 7 flight

One of the most important aspects of space exploration is the missions undertaken by the unmanned probes that have been sent throughout our Solar System.  Each of these spacecraft investigated the natural phenomena of our cosmic neighborhood. With names like Mariner, Voyager, and Magellan, these probes have been instrumental in helping mankind understand the planets other than our own.

While everyone is aware of the multitudes of satellites orbiting above us sending back images of our own world, not many know that a similar network of spacecraft is orbiting Mars. Since the launch of Mariner 4 in 1964, numerous spacecraft have taken photographs and multi-spectral imagery of the martian surface.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or “MRO” has been diligently going about it’s mission since 2006.  On board the orbiter is a special camera known as HiRISE- or  High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment.  This device has recorded in detail much of the Martian surface. Operated by the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, the image library being collected is  used to help the Mars rovers navigate obstacles, interpret possible indications of water, and even for the selection of future landing sites.

From the perspective of the human explorer, having foreknowledge of a untrodden territory can make an incredible difference. Since the first piloted flights of hot-air balloons in the late 1700s, our species has benefited from being able to look down from higher ground and see the world in a new perspective.  Aerial observations became satellite imagery and now any person with the desire to do so can access depictions of any point on the surface of our world- even from a smart phone.

As a navigator by occupation and a geographer by education, I have a personal predilection toward maps.  It is not enough to just see where I am on a map, it is about having a sense of place, to quote one of my undergraduate professors.  That means knowing a space or territory completely- understanding it’s topography, it’s history, culture and future.  As an aviator, I make a point of studying maps and diagrams of where I’m flying to.  That isn’t being obsessive- It’s good mission planning. Many an aircrew has met tragic ends because they misread the approach plate, or map, of the airfield where they planned on landing.

As part of the HI-SEAS Analog Simulation, my crew and I are to replicate the experience of astronauts living and working on the surface of Mars.  However, unlike those future explorers who will have the advantage of imagery like that from MRO and the HiRISE camera, we are ignorant of our surroundings.  The parameters of this study included a precondition that none of the crew be familiar with the region our simulated operations are taking place. Although we all are aware of the location of our habitat, we don’t *really* know the place we are residing.  You can imagine my frustration: Like Don Eisle in 1967- “I have a right to know where I’m going!”

During the next 3.6 months, my crew and I will rely on rudimentary navigational skills and the barest knowledge of igneous geology to find our way on this simulated Mars.  Unlike a real human mission to the red planet, we didn’t have the luxury of years of preparation and training.  Nor were we subjected to intense mission planning like the Apollo 15, 16, & 17 crews who were as familiar with Lunar features as they were their own neighborhoods by the time they launched. The HI-SEAS research team will evaluate my crew’s ability to operate in this alien environment without the aid of Google Earth at our fingertips.

When the first human boot is planted onto the martian regolith, the man or woman who is wearing it will have a better geography lesson about that place than any explorer in the history of civilization. But for now, this explorer will have to do without.

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2 thoughts on “Geography Lessons

  1. So much like the early explorers whose craft was a sailing ship! I cannot imagine just taking off to who knows! I salute you for your bravery to undergo this adventure! “Second star on the right…” :-).

  2. […] One of the most important aspects of space exploration is the missions undertaken by the unmanned probes that have been sent throughout our Solar System.  Each of these spacecraft investigated the natural phenomena of our cosmic neighborhood. With names like Mariner, Voyager, and Magellan, these probes have been instrumental in helping mankind understand the planets other than our own….(more) […]

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